HONG KONG — Huge peaceful protests descended into violent clashes in Hong Kong on Wednesday after police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators hours after the government postponed a debate on a controversial extradition bill.
The proposed law would allow Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. The demonstrators argue it would be the latest step in Beijing trying to increase its grip on this semiautonomous financial hub.
Police officers clad in protective helmets and carrying shields and batons used tear gas and high-pressure hoses to disperse protesters who had gathered around the city’s government complex.
Protesters are surrounded by a cloud of tear gas in Hong Kong on Wednesday.Kin Cheung / AP
Some of the demonstrators, mostly young people dressed in black and wearing hard hats and masks, overturned barriers around the buildings, and threw objects at the officers.
In a chaotic scene, some protesters fled while others attempted to form a human chain handing water, masks and umbrellas to the front.
The escalation followed a day of otherwise mostly peaceful demonstrations. The atmosphere had been remarkably calm as thousands gathered around the government complex, setting up camps and distributing snacks and surgical masks.
Parts of the city were blockaded and brought to a standstill, with many businesses including international brands such as Apple and Lululemon closing their stores early. Outside of the area packed with protesters, some streets resembled a ghost town, with roads usually packed with taxis and buses now virtually empty, and the iconic Hong Kong trolleys stopped in their tracks.
The city’s tourist board has also announced that this weekend’s Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival was canceled.
The protesters’ presence appeared to secure at least a temporary victory. The government had been due to debate the bill Wednesday, but with the masses gathered outside it announced in the morning that it would postpone that discussion “to a later time to be determined.”
The law would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. Supporters say it’s necessary to stop Hong Kong becoming a haven for fugitives, but critics argue it is the latest step in China seeking to erode Hong Kong’s freedoms, and making them subject to Beijing’s murky legal system.
Wednesday’s rally came three days after as many as 1 million people took to the streets. If this figure estimated by organizers is correct, Sunday’s was biggest demonstration in Hong Kong’s history.
Protesters had mixed reactions to news of the postponement, but remained steadfast to their cause, standing under umbrellas and continuing to block potential traffic.
Police fire a water cannon at protesters on Wednesday.Tyrone Siu / Reuters
“I would describe it as a small victory,” said Ramon Yuen, a member of a local district council representing the Democratic Party.
“There are many possibilities … but we want the government to withdraw the amendment,” Yuen added. “No decision has been made to do that, and we do not see any good gestures that they will listen to Hong Kong people’s voices.”
Cyrus Lee, 28, who was taking part in the demonstrations, echoed Yuen’s sentiment, telling NBC News he “can’t tell if it is a good sign or not because you don’t know what they will do next.”
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. This city of 7 million people, has since been governed as a semiautonomous region under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
Protesters occupy roads in Hong Kong on Wednesday.Anthony Wallace / AFP – Getty Images
In theory, this should allow Hong Kong to retain the economic and administrative system that has allowed it to thrive as one of the world’s leading business centers, and free from Beijing’s interference until 2047.
However some see the extradition law, which is endorsed by Beijing and the government it supports in Hong Kong, as an example of Chinese President Xi Jinping seeking to crack down on dissent.
Last week, Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten said the proposed extradition law would “strike a terrible blow … against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub.”
On Wednesday many of the protesters said they were taking part in a general strike. The strike has been endorsed by more than 1,000 small businesses and the 190,000-member Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which called on “all workers to suspend work and join the assembly.”
Michael Vidler, a human rights lawyer based in Hong Kong, said he told his employees that the firm would back them if they chose to join the strike.
Vidler told NBC News that “people are terrified, in my view rightly so,” that the legislation would remove the “fire wall” between Hong Kong and China.
The heavy police presence didn’t stop Andes Yeung, 40, from showing his displeasure for the bill.
“After this passes, Hong Kong is not the Hong Kong we know,” said Yeung, who works as an administrative executive at a retail company.
At one point on Wednesday, dozens of protesters opened colorful umbrellas in what appeared to be a call back to the so-called Umbrella Revolution protests of 2014, when changes in Hong Kong’s electoral laws were rammed through that were seen as highly favorable to Beijing.
Protesters shelter under umbrellas during a downpour in Hong Kong on Wednesday.Anthony Wallace / AFP – Getty Images
The chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has tried to allay concerns by introducing amendments that she says would add safeguards to the legislation.
Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said Monday that the United States had expressed “grave concern” about the measure, which she said could “undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and negatively impact the territory’s longstanding protections of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic values.”
“We are also concerned that the amendments could damage Hong Kong’s business environment and subject our citizens residing in or visiting Hong Kong to China’s capricious judicial system,” she said.
Justin Solomon reported from Hong Kong, Alex Johnson from Los Angeles, and Alexander Smith from London.